In the next couple of months I have a few speaking engagements which have come to me as a result of my being part of the panel who did this review. Our Lead, Prof Susan Orr has also spoken about our findings and I trust you have read the report. I don’t think I would stray far from Susan in describing our findings, or our recommendations. I will be interested to see how it plays out in reality for institutional practice.
The fact that there is no agreed definition of blended learning was a challenge for the panel, but we settled quickly on one which centred the deliberate and thoughtful blending of modes of teaching. A ‘blend’ is different from a ‘mix’. Metaphors can be helpful, particularly domestic ones. Do we aim for a blend which is like tea, or whisky, or a smoothie? is it alchemy, where the carefully selected ingredients are brought together to create a new, high quality desirable experience or is it where all the fresh and over-ripe bits are mushed together and we press extra hard for a few pulses on the liquidizer to ensure we break down the chunks of hard-to-swallow legacy content?
How complex is the process of making a good blend? Is it something anyone can do with some basic kitchen equipment or do you need years of training? Is it a binary task, are we blending just 2 modes or infact many different elements? who are our master blenders and are they our best technicians?
Susan mentions embroidery, I suggest tartan, where the threads and colours are still visible and weave through the piece in familar patterns but each adding an element to the whole. When I was at school in art class we drew in chalks and used our fingers to blend the colours, to smooth the edges and blur the transitions. Now I expect we would use filters in photoshop or insta.
The context of the report was key. It is a snapshot at a certain time and in a certain regulatory environment. The ‘weaponising’ and demonising of online delivery – particularly ( recorded or not) lectures was palpable. Particularly in the media. But we what we found was what we have always known, that lecture recordings are of great value to students. They are transformative in terms of accessibility and much in demand. I suspect that lecture recording will continue to be a contested area in many universities for some time, but for those who have the infrastructure and services in place it is becoming one of the easiest elements of your blend.
‘Infrastructure and services in place’ is key. I think my most significant contribution to the OfS review was the engagement with the heads of e-learning from each of the providers. We cannot assume all universities have the same or equivalent educational technology and digital services in place. There is diversity on the sector, and that is a good thing.
But if you have good IT staff and good learning technologists your lecture recording system is integrated with your VLE, timetable and in-room AV, it requires no extra time from colleagues to do.
When the panel for the review was announced, a couple of snarks suggested that it would be better done by eminent professors of digital education. I think that missed the point that one should not have to be a professor of pedagogy to understand what your university’s blended learning offer is. If you can’t explain it on your website to parents and students ( or regulators) you can’t be surprised when they have different expectations.
The fact that university websites are full of out of date jargon is not a surprise finding. Neither is the fact that students and staff need good digital skills for the tasks they must do. Nor is the fact that quality of teaching is not dependent on modality. There is poor teaching online, or in blended modes, just as there is on campus. Digital does not fix bad work*.
There were a raft of recommendations in the report. My big take-aways for strategic operational teams supporting blended learning now are:
-Check your website. Are there still random pages from days in Covid where all and sundry tried to describe blended and online delivery in strangled, stretched and obscure terms?
-Check your digital estate. Technology proliferated and overlapped in the emergency investments and purchases of the last 3 years. You will need to rationalise that and revisit your vendor partnerships.
-Check your campus. Are you developing the physical estate for blended delivery? not all online activity happens from home.
What happens next? the next big shift will be when everyone realises that hybrid and blended are not the same thing.
The OfS were concerned with student choice. the students took that to mean that they should have a choice: Choosing whether and when or not to come on to campus, at short notice, on the day or to fit in with your own life. That, the panel felt, was quite a different propostion to knowing which bits of your course are on campus and which are not and being expected to plan accordingly.
*purgamentum innit, exit purgamentum.